Jokic’s NBA MVP a win for hoops-crazed nations outside the US
LONDON – Maybe it’s the ćevapi, or the souvlaki, or the mbanga soup.
Either way, there’s no denying the tinge of international flavor when it comes to the NBA’s top flight with Denver Nuggets center Nikola Jokic set to become the league’s MVP for a second straight season, a person familiar with the situation told The Associated Press. The MVP has not been publicly announced by the league.
This will be the fourth consecutive year that a foreign-born player has been crowned MVP, another first for the NBA.
The Serbian big man beat two-time MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo of Greece and defending champion Milwaukee Bucks and Philadelphia center Joel Embiid of Cameroon to score another first – never before have the top three in MVP voting all been internationals.
The NBA playoffs are packed with international talent, including Dallas Mavericks guard Luka Doncic, the 2019 Rookie of the Year and EuroLeague champion from Slovenia.
The influx of international talent was the vision of former commissioner David Stern. He viewed the NBA as a global entity and insisted that the league be a driving force in the growth of the game internationally.
“It’s David Stern’s dream,” Philadelphia coach Doc Rivers said. “Everyone is good. It’s a global game. It’s not just ‘us’ anymore, whatever we want to say. It’s a global game and that’s a good thing.”
The ripple effect of international actors extends far beyond the United States
For the basketball-crazed countries of Serbia and Greece, the success of Jokic and Antetokounmpo is synonymous with bragging rights. Antetokounmpo has won back-to-back MVP awards (2018-19, 19-20), and now the pride of Sombor, Serbia has matched him.
“We are a basketball country. This is further proof that we are the best,” said Marko Ćosić, who trained a teenage Jokic as a strength and conditioning coach at the Belgrade Mega club. . “It’s not easy for a country like Serbia with 7 million people to compete with the rest of the world.”
Ćosić, now a professor at the University of Belgrade, said Jokic’s playing style “is really poetry…he’s an artist”. Jokic, 27, averaged 27.1 points, 13.8 rebounds and 7.9 assists in the regular season.
On NBA Europe social media, content featuring Antetokounmpo performs 100% better than the average post, according to the NBA. Jokic content does 10% better than average.
NBA League Pass subscriber growth shows an increase of 17% in Serbia, 14% in Slovenia and 9% in Greece this season compared to last season. It grew by 40% across Africa as a whole, although the NBA does not publish its total subscriber count.
The league has scheduled the Bucks and Atlanta Hawks to play two preseason games in Abu Dhabi in October, marking the first NBA games in the United Arab Emirates and the Persian Gulf.
It’s impossible to overstate the impact Antetokounmpo has had on Greece, both as a player and as a person. He was born to Nigerian immigrant parents and only obtained a Greek passport shortly before being drafted in 2013.
“Giannis is a hero. He’s a good image of Greece. He’s an ambassador for Greece in the world,” said Vassilis Skountis, NBA broadcaster on Cosmote TV.
In Greek sports media there is football, basketball and Giannis.
Yes, Antetokounmpo is basically its own news category. There is live coverage of the games, whatever the time in Greece, and analysis of his performance.
Parents love him, children want to be like him.
“He’s Greek, he’s very spectacular, he’s very strong, he dunks, he wins championships, he plays with the national team,” Skountis said. “Kids here in Greece, everyone wants to be like Giannis.”
In Cameroon and throughout Africa, where football dominates, Embiid is a budding role model, as is Antetokounmpo.
“These kids coming from overseas…they end up working twice as hard,” said Joe Touomou, associate technical director at NBA Academy Africa. “When it’s time to compete, you see the results of that hard work. That’s why you see those three foreign guys at the top.”
The NBA is helping to develop the sport in Africa, opening an academy and partnering with FIBA to organize a Champions League-style competition for club teams.
Rivers has seen it and loves it.
“I went to Africa a few years ago, to Dakar, and it’s amazing. It really is,” Rivers said. “The academy the NBA runs in Africa is unlike any other.”
Basketball Without Borders plays a pivotal role, with annual camps showcasing prospects and exposing them to NBA players and coaches.
Embiid was a shy and skinny camper in 2011.
“Quite frankly, Joel wasn’t the best prospect we had,” said Touomou, who is Cameroonian and a family friend of Embiid. But he had size, coordination “and he was fearless”.
Embiid is said to be interested in obtaining French citizenship, which would make him eligible to play for France ahead of the 2024 Paris Olympics. He would likely be forgiven in Cameroon, who primarily care about football.
In the basketball hotbeds of Europe, however, winning medals for the country is just as important as NBA success – maybe more so.
Jokic helped Serbia win silver at the Rio de Janeiro Olympics in 2016 but did not make the Tokyo Games qualifiers last summer, saying he was exhausted from his first season as MVP. Serbia hosted the qualifying tournament but lost to Italy in the deciding match.
“Whatever problems he has playing for the Serbian team, all parties – the Serbian team, the basketball association and him – have to work together to try to solve it,” Andrija said. Pavlovic, a Serbian basketball fan who lives in London. “We need him. We’ve had a lot of success in the past. It’s a tradition we’re looking to continue.”
AP Basketball Writer Tim Reynolds in Miami contributed to this report.
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